I had never been to a pow-wow, but I'd heard plenty about them. Most of what I'd been told could be roughly summarized in three words: fun, but fake. I'd always been attracted to Native American culture, its philosophy, its worldview, its simplicity. I was eager to experience it, curious to know if I could still feel it alive. So, when I arrived at the Crossroads Competition Pow-Wow at the Monroe County Fairgrounds in Bloomington, I was both excited with anticipation and dreading what I could find.
The first thing I heard was the sound of the flute - magical and ethereal, it emitted a simple, peaceful melody, the long notes almost trance-inducing. I followed its sound, mesmerized. And then the magic broke, for I found myself in an events pavilion - bright fluorescent lights shone uncomfortably above my head, and the concrete floor felt unnatural beneath my feet. It was supposed to rain, so the pow-wow was moved to a rain site. We hadn't had a good rain for more than a month.
How sadly ironic. "True" Indians would have been outside doing the rain dance, and when it came they would surely celebrate in the rain, not hide from it.
I sat down on one of the sparsely populated benches and listened to Will Harjo, the flute player. Harjo, a Muskogee, had a kindly face, his thin, twin braids falling on either shoulder starting salt-and-pepper and finishing pitch-black. As it turned out, Harjo was as great a storyteller as he was a flutist (and flute maker). Forgetting my stark synthetic surroundings, I let his voice transport me to the distant woods where First Woman had hidden after she had a fight with First Man. First Man enjoyed his freedom at first, Harjo said, but then he started missing her, and went looking for her. They made up, and ate strawberries - and the taste of strawberries reminds us, until today, of the bittersweetness of romance.
Harjo then told the story of a greedy baker woman who got turned into a woodpecker by the god of bread. He said elders told this and other stories to children when they misbehaved. "These are called behavior modification stories," he said. Young and old faces in the audience stared at him, enthralled.
Most of the audience - which at this point consisted of about a dozen spectators spread along the benches - looked white, though sometimes Native American blood is so diluted you can't really tell. The humorous emcee, Oglala-Sioux tribe member Woodie Richards, confirmed my fears when, later, with the benches packed, he asked the crowd: "How many of you are Indians?" to which some half-dozen hands were lifted; "How many are half-Indians?" and the hand count was not much bigger. "Boy, we're still outnumbered," he said sarcastically.
More and more people steadily trickled in. Outside, the rain was holding off, and people wandered in and out of tents set up for a primitive encampment re-enactment. Andrew Knight, sweating under a fur hat with a single long feather sticking out, stood outside his round wood tent. The inside was lined with furs, fruits, bowls and other small objects scattered about. It took him two hours to set up the tent on that humid summer morning. Knight's been setting up tents at pow-wows for 30 years now.
"I don't know why I do it," he said. "Standing out here sweating, wearing fur and leather." But he soon remembered. "It's a way of showing people your roots. The deeper your roots go, the wider your branches spread. It's not just about the past. It's our future, too."
I met another tent dweller, a thin, pale man with a bandana half covering a star tattooed on the side of his shaved head. He told me his name is Many Names. "People used to call me Sleeping Dog, He Talks Too Much, and many other names. So now it's just Many Names."
Nearby, children played double-ball, a leather strap ending in two leather balls filled with peas. They used long wood sticks to throw it to each other.
On the other side of the encampment, pow-wow dancers started preparing for the opening ceremony. Layer upon layer, the dancers began their transformation. A teenager had a black band painted over his eyes. An older man jingled as he passed by, bells and fringes lining the end of his pants.
I was attracted by a pleasant smell coming from behind a pickup truck; there, three men stood in a circle around a bowl of burning incense. It's sage, for purification, they told me.
As I introduced myself, they amicably told me journalists aren't what they used to be - "Walter Cronkite got us out of Vietnam," said the one with short black hair and a mustache. His name was Doug Nasief, and he wore 20 pounds of clothes - but he wasn't too uncomfortable. At 55, he'd been dancing since he was 11, and he showed me a piece of white, light-blue and orange beaded jewelry that he's worn since the first time. His heritage? Irish and Lebanese. But his heart chose to be Indian.
"When I was a kid, I used to watch cowboys and Indians, and I always took the Indians' side," Nasief said. "I'm spiritually Native American. I'm an earth man." He said he dances for the "mental high" he gets from it.
Nasief's friend, Jeff Foreman, a descendant of Tennessee Cherokees, made his own dancing regalia. The image of an eagle, filled with tiny red, white and blue beads in the pattern of the American flag, was repeated in the front, back and sides of his clothing. Military decorations were displayed in the front, honoring his ancestors. They were from his brother, a Vietnam veteran, and father, a World War II veteran.
It makes sense to Foreman to honor Native Americans and veterans at the same time. Native Americans had their warriors, responsible for the protection of the people; war veterans sacrificed their lives to protect their people too. He proudly claimed the feather bustle he was wearing was more than 40 years old and was given to him by an elder who couldn't dance anymore. Pow-wows reminded him of what's important - respect for Mother Earth and fellow humans.
"It takes us out of the dog-eat-dog, 7-to-5-shift life and puts us back where we ought to be."
The third friend, Barry Brewer, added, "The real world is not as important here." He told me his and Foreman's ancestors, who were council leaders, had been good friends back in 1810, when Foreman's family was killed in the Yahoo Falls Massacre near Cumberland Falls. They met each other playing drums some years back and found out about their families' crossed paths. "It comes full circle," Brewer said.
I wished them good luck and proceeded to the audience, as the ceremony was about to start. The place was packed. Suddenly, the drums started beating as one. The steady rhythm grew louder. And then the singing started, and I shivered. It was powerful, raw, and it seemed to be filled with pain.
As the dancers entered in procession, my eyes feasted on the hundreds of colors that filled the room, from black and blue and red to neon pink and green. Children, teenagers, adults and elders were caught in the moment; they jumped, bounced, and moved like birds, their feathers softly fluttering around them. Adding to the music, the sound of a hundred tiny little bells filled the air, and everything was rhythm, energy, freedom.
Teary-eyed, I imagined how life must have been like when this was not a staging - when it was real. I closed my eyes and imagined a different time and a different place, when life was more vibrant, people felt more alive, and happiness was simpler to achieve.
As the opening ceremony ended, I was brought to earth as Woodie Richards, the emcee and pow-wow organizer, reminded the audience that this was a competition pow-wow, and participants would contest for cash prizes. It felt wrong, and not only to me. Richards later told me he didn't think pow-wows were a true representation of Native American culture.
"People do it for money, they do it for show," he said.
But I refused to believe that was all there was to it. After all, I had seen passion in the way people danced, sang and played the drums; I had heard the love for their culture in the stories they told.
As the rain finally started pouring, I wondered if those people - if I - had just been born at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Joyce Biazoto can be reached at .